Before the Romans, pagan tribes of Europe held a special reverence for the natural world. They honored nature outdoors under enormous ancient oaks, where the spirit of the vegetation was thought to dwell. In winter, when the trees were bare, the spirits moved to evergreens, explaining why holly, with its bright red berries, was first cut and brought indoors to bless the household around the winter solstice.
Because the spirit resided in that plant, it wasn’t discarded after the solstice, but taken down and burned ceremoniously. This early pagan spirituality is the root of future Christian traditions that we still practice today. Cutting living plants to bring indoors is the most authentic, ancient, affordable and sustainable way to bring the spirit of the season home.
Take a walk around your yard or that of neighbors, friends and family to learn what’s growing locally that will contribute to your creative holiday decorating. Look for sticks and vines cut from dormant plants for the structural stuff of wreaths, swags and garlands. Red berries from common ornamental shrubs provide bright accents for your creations. Evergreens pruned from coniferous trees and shrubs such as fir and cedar are the essential greenery that pulls it all together while offering that beloved natural fragrance of a fresh-cut tree.
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Using living deciduous plant materials while they are fresh and flexible is key to creating structures you can decorate this year, and then strip them to store the structure for next year’s style trends. Vine runners such as grapes or honeysuckle, or long stems of weeping willow make beautiful garlands for the mantle, the stair rail and to spiral around posts and columns. Use these same runners to coil into a basic wreath that you can use year after year. A swag is often created upon a stiff branching structure such as a broom-like bundle of sticks that hangs from its tightly bound stems on a door or bare wall.
Red berries balance all the holiday evergreens because red and green are complementary colors that cause visual vibrations to the human eye. Few plants bear their fruits during winter except, of course, holly, which is the optimal choice for decorative cuttings of both foliage and berry. Rose hips grow wild in many areas where the plants are native, or hunt for garden roses that naturalized locally and are going to seed. Two important ornamental shrub genera that contain many species and varieties bearing vividly colored winter berries are Cotoneaster and Pyracantha. In the West, where conditions are dry, the California pepper tree red clusters of peppercorns and the fruit of Christmas berry, a foothill native evergreen are common in landscaping.
Needled evergreens are naturally drought-resistant so their foliage, once cut, doesn’t wilt, but its oils evaporate into the air. Those conifers with dense foliage make better plants for decorating. Fir, cedar, some pines, juniper, arborvitae and redwood all make excellent choices for fleshing out twig structures. A blend of these in your garden ensures plenty of diversity of hues and textures in your future organic holiday creations.
Use florist wire to attach your evergreens and berries to the twiggy garland or wreath structures. Cut old flannel shirts with lots of red plaid into bindings and bows to pull off an accent. Work in smaller pine cones or those painted for “snow,” wiring these securely as well.
After the new year, take down your decorations and remove all the organic material to burn, compost, chip or shred. Store the bare structures on a flat surface away from heat or sun wrapped in an old sheet to keep the dust out.
After the holidays, just imagine what happens to discarded plastic stuff that will not decompose in our lifetime or even that of our children. Don’t be part of that problem. Decorate with plants naturally, just as the ancients did for a truly authentic, affordable and sustainable Christmas celebration.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.